Taking Pet Portraits Using Your Digital SLR - dummies

Taking Pet Portraits Using Your Digital SLR

By Doug Sahlin

Whether your pet is a cat, dog, bird, rodent, reptile, or none of the above, you can use your digital SLR camera to take frame-worthy portraits of your pet that you can treasure long after the pet has gone to his furry or scaly reward.

Choosing the time and place to take a portrait of your pet

Taking a portrait is different than taking shots of your pet at play. With a portrait, you want your pet sitting still and showing his best features. So, you have to do a little bit of planning for your portrait session.

Find a location that has a plain background that contrasts well with your pet’s colors:

  • Light background for a dark-colored pet

  • Dark background for a light-colored pet

  • Neutral background for a colorful pet, such as a flamboyant bird or reptile

    [Credit: Corbis Digital Stock]
    Credit: Corbis Digital Stock

You can create a background by hanging a cloth or sheet at a strategic point.

If you’re photographing your pet outdoors, do it early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when you have golden light that doesn’t cast harsh shadows.

Birds, dogs, and gerbils can usually be persuaded to sit still for a couple minutes, but cats are different. Cats are creatures of habit and do the same things at the same times of the day. Your best bet is to have your camera ready when your cat gets ready to meditate on the bird feeder and be quick in pressing the shutter button.

Setting up your camera to take pet portraits

In a pet portrait, you want the pet to be the center of attention, which requires you to control the depth of field. Therefore, you take the picture in Aperture Priority mode and use an f/stop of 3.5 or a smaller to get a shallow depth of field. When you photograph a large dog, you need a slightly larger depth of field. Choose a smaller aperture with an f/stop of f/6.3 or f/7.1 to get the dog in focus from front to back.

When you use a single auto-focus point, you can get your pet’s eyes in sharp focus. An ISO setting between 100 and 400 enables you to capture the portrait in bright light or cloudy conditions. If you’re shooting the picture in very dim lighting, increase the ISO setting. A focal length of 80mm to 100mm gives you a natural-looking portrait of your pet.

You may find image stabilization useful (if your camera or lens comes equipped with this feature) because image stabilization offsets any operator movement to ensure a blur-free image.

[Credit: Photo courtesy of Roxanne Evans, www.dougplusrox.com]
Credit: Photo courtesy of Roxanne Evans, www.dougplusrox.com

A medium telephoto focal length lets you get close to your furry or feathered friend without spooking him and does a wonderful job of modeling his features.

Taking the picture of your pet

Having an assistant help with the pet frees you up to do the photography. Your helper can give treats or position the pet as necessary.

Before you try to position your pet, position yourself so that you’re on the animal’s level. When you and the pet are ready, zoom in, position the auto-focus point over the eye closest to the camera, and then press the shutter button halfway to achieve focus.

Often, you get a more interesting picture if you don’t center the animal in the frame. Align one of the pet’s eyes on a power point, according to the Rule of Thirds.

Press the shutter button to take the picture, but don’t stop with just one. If the pet you’re photographing is a ham, you can get a lot of wonderful photos. Eventually, the dog tires of being the subject of a pet paparazzo and goes somewhere for a rest. Follow the pet to get the opportunity to capture a wonderful candid photo.


If you aim a flash directly at a cat, bright light may scare him and make him become wary of the camera. Direct flash also creates a photo that has the feline equivalent of red-eye, which is a ghastly white glow caused by the flash reflecting off the cat’s retina. If you need to augment lighting with flash, bounce the flash off the ceiling or use a diffuser.